Meet the artist disrupting Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati

Lauren Henkin’s series of sculptural interventions in unexpected spaces is giving the late architect’s first US building a new slant

Wire & polystyrene sculpture
Prop 3, 2019, by Lauren Henkin
(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

‘What is art?’ seems to be a never-ending debate. This time, though, it’s not the critics looking down their noses, but in fact, an artist forging the dialogue. Recently opened at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), an exhibition by sculptor and photographer Lauren Henkin returns to her original study of space with eight site-specific sculptures.

In the series Props, she wagers a challenge to museumgoers ‘to consider what their criteria is in determining whether something is art’. The CAC, in fact, is the first realised project in the US by the late Zaha Hadid, and the first American museum designed by a woman. The building itself was actually the springboard for Henkin, who originally studied architecture and recently ‘returned to sculpture, which always felt like my native language’, she explains.

White wall with black metal rods sticking out

Prop 7, 2019, by Lauren Henkin.

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

‘In early 2018, I proposed creating sculptural interventions that incorporate the surrounding space and architecture into the actual pieces, where the entire environment would meld into a singular experience,’ the artist says after she met with CAC curator Steven Matijcio back in 2015. Though Matijcio has since left the museum (he’s now director of the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston), he was ‘looking at work that could live in unconventional spaces within the centre’ and intrigued by ‘Lauren’s approach to this architectural interruption’.

Props are quite literally interrupting the CAC’s galleries and passageways, key public spaces which the museum has previously kept free of any art display. For example, ‘I noticed that many people use the staircase instead of the elevator to move vertically through the building,’ says Henkin, so Prop 5 was imagined, fractal plywood that disrupts the building’s main staircase. But these interventions aren’t merely about their physical locations. ‘I wanted to break with the formality of building’s materials by using raw lumber, PVC pipes, electrical cables and more – materials that are rough, unkempt and unexpected,’ Henkin adds, in contrast to Hadid’s concrete and glass structure.

These works, in turn, create an active dialogue to Hadid’s space, something both Henkin and Matijcio both had at the forefront of their minds when creating the show. ‘Being a dynamic, evolving and timely non-collecting contemporary arts space, one must keep everything active – even the space itself,’ explains Matijcio. And Henkin’s works are ‘a captivating and considered debate with Zaha, spoken through materials, space and structure’. But whether constructions of pipes and plywood are themselves art? Well, Matijco replies, ‘When one exits their comfort zone, new ideas and navigations can take root. That was always the goal.’

Black staircase with wooden panels

Prop 5, 2019, by Lauren Henkin.

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

Wooden sculpture in window

Prop 1, 2019, by Lauren Henkin.

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

Close up of mixed material sculpture

Prop 3 (detail), 2019, by Lauren Henkin.

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

Line of stone sculptures

Prop 2, 2019, by Lauren Henkin

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

Grey sculptures attached to corner walls

Prop 8, 2019, by Lauren Henkin

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)

White pipe sculpture

Prop 4, 2019, by Lauren Henkin

(Image credit: Jeremy Kramer)


‘Lauren Henkin: Props’, until March 2020, Contemporary Arts Center.


Contemporary Arts Center
44 East 6 Street


Julie Baumgardner is an arts and culture writer, editor and journalist who's spent nearly 15 years covering all aspects of art, design, culture and travel. Julie's work has appeared in publications including Bloomberg, Cultured, Financial Times, New York magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, as well as Wallpaper*.  She has also been interviewed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald, Observer, Vox, USA Today, as well as worked on publications with Rizzoli press and spoken at art fairs and conferences in the US, Middle East and Asia. Find her @juliewithab or